For the past few years, most of the major manufacturers have embraced a war on specs — which ultimately led to an incredibly fast-paced evolution of the smartphone. Unlike any other tech-related market before it – think desktop computers or laptops – however, the smartphone has proven to be disruptive in a different kind of way; it became truly universal, and capable of becoming an intimate part of virtually every aspect of people’s lives, from their jobs to personal hobbies to more practical utilities and a myriad of other use cases enabled by its mobility.
We had mobile phones before, sure, but the smartphone arrived and put a small computer in our hands, one that would eventually allow us to do a million things on the go that we would have only dreamed of a few years prior, literally outgrowing the tech industry and making companies like Google, Amazon and Apple among the highest valued in the world. So naturally, with such a big, expanding and opportunity-rich market, manufacturers and other tech giants alike put all of their effort into improving and refining these experiences, ultimately taking us where we are now.
The spec-war has been furious: each year’s imperative was a constant impel to cram in the newest and best components on the market in the smallest, most elegant package possible. More pixels, more megapixels, more cores, more RAM, more everything. While users — at least on Android — most notably complained about the lack of a polished experience to match the sheer capabilities of these internals, looking at it in retrospect we can see just how far we have come…
A notable trend in 2015 saw good smartphones getting considerably cheaper, and less expensive devices generally becoming better. While bad handsets are indeed still out there, looking at the mid – and most notably high – end of the spectrum it becomes incredibly hard to pinpoint phones that miss out on important features; most are fast and fluid, take good or even great pictures, last well through a full day of use and are often crafted out of premium materials with solid designs – think of Xiaomi’s latest Mi 5, for instance.
Sure, when reviewed each phone has its flaws and shortcomings, and Android still has to deal with often poorly received third-party ‘skins’, whose experiences usually are far from desirable, but using the Galaxy S7 edge has made me think again about that, as well as the current state of smartphones in general, encouraging me to throw an eye towards the future and think what may be on the horizon. Ultimately, I asked myself: have we reached ‘peak smartphone’?
To quickly get it out of the way, the term ‘peak’ here is not meant to be a metaphor for a point from which things can only go downhill – far from it. The S7 is not a ‘perfect’ phone, but the fact that it may be the closest thing to it I have ever used really did make me wonder. It’s the first device I’ve owned that doesn’t make me wish for any substantial change, and while the absence of USB-C and front-facing speakers does bother me – even more so coming from the Nexus 6P – those are things I quickly forget about in day to day use.
This phone is as fast as it can get even under the heaviest of workloads, its screen is absolutely gorgeous, the battery almost never requires me to even look at the percentage (and boy, is it quick to top up!), the camera is insanely rapid to open and takes fantastic shots 99% of the time, all the while being both stupendous to look at and waterproof to top it off. Personally, I don’t even mind TouchWiz anymore; it has all the features I was using on stock Android, it is customizable via themes and adds some actually useful touches from Samsung with very little fanfare. And if you still don’t like it, just swap it with the Google Now Launcher.
I don’t use Samsung’s stock apps, which I wish were not there, but to complain about that would be missing the point. If the experience stays consistent in terms of performance and there is no major feature set to come with Android N – which could lead to frustrating waiting times – then what’s next? And that is not a question aimed at Galaxy S7 customers alone, but something that addresses a bigger underlying paradigm affecting the mobile industry as a whole. To answer the other question I had asked myself about a month ago, I believe I finally have a clear answer: yes, the Galaxy S7 edge is good enough, and then some.
Inevitably, the S7 is going to be topped soon, or at least matched by other manufacturer’s phones, and users may like other skins or OSes altogether. However, there will arguably be little room for discussion as far as the things that matter for most people go. No phone will be noticeably faster, longer-lasting or equipped with a better screen or camera than the other, or at least not enough to solely justify a specific purchase. The differences will likely rely on personal design preferences, availability and price, all things that are not inherently related to how a phone is built.
Put in this perspective, it almost feels like we may have reached the end of the ‘Smartphone 1.0’ era, the one initiated by the first iPhone almost ten years ago. Looking forward, I think, there will be a period in which the smartphone will not introduce any significant, truly game-changing feature, focusing more on entering markets where its distribution is not as widespread as, say, China, the US or Europe, and honing the software experience as things like VR and the Internet of Things demand a more solid ground to work on.
Updates will be incremental, minor, possibly experimental – like in the case of the LG G5’s ‘Friends’ or pressure-sensitive panels – but focus will generally be on lowering the prices, allowing most people to catch-up (as not everyone can access the latest and greatest tech immediately) and making sure that the highest number of devices manage to get the latest software. Is any other groundbreaking feature being worked on inside, say, Mountain View or Cupertino’s labs? We can’t say it for sure.
What might a ‘Smartphone 2.0’ even be is still a mystery, honestly. A device whose computing power may be enough to function as a full blown PC could be an idea, (see Microsoft’s Continuum, for example) especially given the increasing convergence of mobile and desktop operating systems due to the rise of ‘convertible’ devices being pushed on the market right now.
Another trend that could eventually take off is that of fully modular smartphones a la Project Ara, whose components, made by different manufacturers, would be entirely swappable at the user’s will. These new mobile devices would be conceptually more akin to custom PC builds, thanks to added customizability and the chance customers would get to replace or upgrade the single parts rather than buy an entirely new, ‘fixed’ handset. A market based on third-party components would indeed be interesting, and could lead to an entirely different way of conceiving the smartphone.
However, although we likely will get there, whether such a thing may ultimately turn out to be game-changing to a point where we will look back and refer to it as “Smartphone 2.0” is hard to tell, and it will take years for the mainstream public to adopt a model like that anyway. For now, we should just be happy that the smartphone market is finally mature, and that the vanishing compromises will let us choose what we like over what we need.